Commentary Politics

Elizabeth Warren and Indigenous People’s Erasure in Colonial Narratives

Jen Deerinwater

"Native Americans are consistently talked over. We are talked over by conservatives who make racist jokes and war whoops. And we are talked over by Democrats, like Warren, who profess solidarity, and then, when it's politically convenient, plow right over us.”

The media has done a fine job of supporting white supremacy and colonialism through its white settler-washed reporting of the stories of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claims to the Tsalagi and the Covington Catholic High School boys’ disrespect of Native elder Nathan Phillips. Despite our numerous accolades, degrees, and the variety of ways that Indigenous people speak out, non-Native media won’t listen. Meanwhile, when Native people speak to the harm we’ve endured as a result of this oppression, our voices are erased at best and vilified at worst.

Frustratingly, I imagine that my words here will most likely be met with hostility rather than quiet reflection and personal growth aimed at becoming an accomplice to Native people. Regardless, I will continue to speak out for the rights of Indigenous people. The comfort of colonizers and settlers is not of my concern.

I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. My family doesn’t speak our language or know our ceremonies due to colonization, but we are still grounded in our indigeneity. I was raised in Oklahoma surrounded by many Indigenous people from across the “Americas.” My father taught me what the U.S. government did to our people and that I should be proud to be Tsalagi. I was taught to stand for what is right even when it is unpopular or dangerous.

So when Warren’s claim of Native American heritage picked up speed again last year, I quickly spoke out with my concerns.

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I even interviewed Warren in February 2018, and I will never forget the smug look on her face as she claimed, “I know who my family is,” when I questioned her about her misguided claims of Native heritage.

As a result of my recent work holding Warren accountable, I have been called “Russian,” “GOP,” and “fake news,” and I have been told that my actions will keep President Trump in office, that I’m not a “real Indian,” and that if I don’t like America I should leave. The violence hurled at me—and other Native reporters—has been despicably colonial and has crossed party lines.

This violence is completely in line with the erasure of Native people that Warren has contributed to. By boiling down thousands of years of indigeneity, culture, and community and hundreds of years of genocide and resilience into nothing more than unproven family lore and racist pseudoscience, she—and her many fans—have erased me and all others who are genuinely Indigenous.

Despite Europeans’ and Americans’ many attempts to racialize Native people, we are not a race. We are distinct sovereign nations. We have our own governments, courts, elected officials, cultural and community spaces, and so much more. It is not our blood quantum or even our tribal citizenry that makes us who we are; it is our connection to our ancestors, people, and the seven generations to come.

Warren is simply not one of us, and no DNA test will ever right the many wrongs she has committed against us with her previous remarks on her alleged Native background.

Most recently, after Warren announced her exploratory campaign for the 2020 presidential election, some white journalists began pitting Native people against each other. HuffPost Senior Politics Reporter Jennifer Bendery wrote a harmful, anti-Native article in January about how the media was “blowing” its coverage of Warren’s DNA test. Based on interviews with “several” people, Bendery argued that Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin’s “legitimate anger” was his alone and his comments did not reflect those of the Cherokee Nation, calling into question our sovereign governments. But the U.S. Secretary of State is also an appointed position, and when Secretary Pompeo speaks he does so with the authority of the U.S. government. This is no different for Native nations.

Bendery didn’t initially include comments from any citizens of the Cherokee Nation. The story was later updated to include a response from a Cherokee Nation spokesperson.

She also overlooked the work of professional genealogist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma David Cornsilk, who has not found any evidence that Warren is Tsalagi. She didn’t include the work of Kim TallBear, who has repeatedly stated that DNA tests will not prove indigeneity. These tests are a source of further genocide. As TallBear has pointed out, “In the case of DNA, science now offers a kindler, gentler hand in the disappearing of Native people.”

Bendery attempted to turn Native people against one another through statements of support for Warren from Native people who aren’t Tsalagi or citizens of the Cherokee Nation. While we share many similarities and issues, Tsalagis are not the same as the Lakota, any more than Japanese people are akin to Korean people. Our needs are different and the only voices that matter regarding Tsalagi affairs are those of Tsalagi people.

Not only has the coverage by journalists been anti-Native, but the work has reflected just how little Americans know about us. The Native American Journalists Association released a statement regarding HuffPost’s abysmal coverage. When a senior politics reporter doesn’t even understand tribal sovereignty and government, then we will never be covered properly.

“The news coverage over the Warren debate perpetuates harmful myths about Native identity while real information about one of the most invisible and underrepresented groups in America is rarely published,” Rebecca Nagle, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a critic of Warren, told me. Nagle has cited over 400 fake tribal groups in her writing, some claiming to be Cherokee. “Native Americans are consistently talked over. We are talked over by conservatives who make racist jokes and war whoops. And we are talked over by Democrats, like Warren, who profess solidarity, and then when its politically convenient, plow right over us.”

Nearly two weeks before she formally announced her presidential bid, Warren issued an apology to the Cherokee Nation for taking a DNA test and for falsely claiming Tsalagi. But the damage has already been done. Native women and people have suffered numerous hateful attacks through the mocking of Warren. Pocahontas, Sacagawea, and squaw are just a few of the hateful epithets we’ve had to survive along with other attacks that I fear will only grow worse as we gain more visibility through the elections of Congresswomen Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-KS), and as the 2020 campaign cycle proceeds.

Sure, apologies are an important first step toward righting wrongs, but they simply aren’t enough. Her apologies have been inadequate and problematic. It’s not enough to stop claiming tribal citizenship and to supposedly support tribal sovereignty when she hasn’t taken full responsibility for her past behavior, such as claiming to be “American Indian” on a State Bar of Texas registration card in April 1986, which the Washington Post recently uncovered. Warren needs to right these wrongs—each and every one—instead of seeming to want them to go away without a public apology, just like when she announced the results of her DNA test. Warren needs to commit to a lifelong process of reconciliation and accompliceship to Indigenous people, in particular Tsalagi and Lenape people.

An Endless Pattern of Violence

What happened after elder Nathan Phillips was disrespected and provoked by a group of MAGA-hat wearing white, cis boys offers another example of the way non-Natives are failing Indigenous nations. The boys, from an elite Catholic school based in Kentucky, were in Washington, D.C., to rally against the rights of those with wombs when they were caught on video disrespecting and mocking Native elders.

Since the incident, and after a PR firm rewrote the boys’ actions as innocent, the hypocrisy of the news coverage has been astounding. There have been several scornful articles calling into question Phillips’ moral integrity based on some of his own youthful mistakes, many of which were a result of historical and intergenerational trauma. This story is akin to how the New York Times vilified Mike Brown, a victim of a police shooting, as “no angel.” This is a situation where white people are allowed to make grievous mistakes that harm Red, Black, and Brown lives, yet they can still be represented by exorbitant PR firms with ties to politicians and CNN.

I have repeatedly watched primarily white journalists make excuse after excuse for Warren’s reprehensible behavior, just as I have watched the media and white America bend over backwards to rewrite the narrative of the Covington Catholic boys, who hail from a school, community, and country laden with white supremacy.

“After the behavior of the Covington Catholic boys at the Lincoln Memorial—for a brief moment—our country appeared to be ready to have the exceedingly rare and desperately needed conversation about contemporary racism against Native Americans,” said Nagle. “Unfortunately, that conversation got squashed by political operatives with their own agendas and much more access to media and power than us.”

Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative—that has never mattered when it comes to the rights and voices of Indigenous people. To listen to and honor us means to acknowledge a brutal history and present-day situation of genocide, and the complicity and complacency Americans have had in it. The media is only continuing this through its paltry coverage of Indigenous people and our many issues. Until we have more Indigenous people working not only in media, but in managerial positions, I fear that this harm will only continue.

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